Ralph Steadman

Somewhere in the forums of Sketchbook Skool, I mentioned Ronald Searle, and then someone replied and mentioned Ralph Steadman. I’d never heard of him. Found a whole documentary about the guy. I love watching artists at work, and I love the maniacal weirdness of his drawings. The music on this thing is wonderful, too.

Monkey, dressed in finery

Desert Rose
Another one that went into Gypsies, Vagabonds & Wild Mad Women (currently showing at TactileArts in Fannie Bay, NT, until the 7th of May,) although I photographed this in-progress, and then didn’t bother to take another when it was done. Her fingers are in the final work, and a bird perches on the window ledge.

Not a painting, at all, but something I did to fulfill my quota of pieces for the group show.

With so much repetitive pattern going on, this is actually a sly deception…it’s a zen tangle pretending to be a painting. The difference? In a painting, every mark is—ideally—placed with purpose…even in (or I should say, especially in) abstract paintings. Nothing is put in carelessly; a good painter doesn’t just fling his brush wildly at the canvas while he’s watching The Bold and the Beautiful over his shoulder. No mark is superficial, or accidental. In the world’s serious art schools, a mark is defined as having a beginning, and an end. Even the smallest mark moves in a definite direction, carries a weight. A mark finishes as strongly as it began, and plays a part in balancing the whole. A successful mark is one that, if removed, would ‘unbalance’ the painting…rather like a judicious comma in a complex sentence. Painters make their marks intentionally, consciously.

Pattern making, on the other hand, is a form of hypnosis. It is avoidance of The Present. It lulls awareness to sleep. It is the hand running on autopilot, making repetitive marks, while the mind floats away. It is—ironically for those who look to aimless pattern-making as meditation and to stay grounded in the present—quite the opposite of mindfulness. It is more like nail-biting, chewing gum, or swinging your foot to a fro incessantly when seated: a nervous habit that the body fidgets with, unconsciously, as the mind sneaks off to wrangle in thoughts of the past, the future, or engages in monkey chatter with itself.

The deception is upon myself. My monkey is very sophisticated. I should know better…I have read many books on mindfulness; but then, so has my monkey. Something like this picture can seem so much more ‘purposeful’ than nail-biting, or watching television, or scrolling through Pinterest for four hours. At the end of my doodling, Monkey has produced something colourful and attractive…to the unpracticed eye, it looks as though I have been very creative with my time. But making this was no more creative than hours spent on a colouring-in book, staying within the lines. I know Monkey was behind it, all along, because I produced this like an automaton, and at no point did I feel like I was putting any of myself into it. I used the heavy allover pattern-making to fill the void, to avoid real engagement, the hard work of being honest with myself. I let my monkey distract me from the challenge of really looking, from working with mindfulness and with all of myself present.

Don’t think I am feeling “down” or beating myself up, please! And no, I am not fishing for compliments. Trust me, I know what it is that I have made. I am writing this down partly as an apology for including it in an exhibition…it was not honest enough a work to be shown to others. But in the end I didn’t have enough pieces, and didn’t want to let the other artists down by not producing my share of work.

More than all this, I am amused, and glad that I caught my clever little monkey at her tricks. I am someone who enjoys discussing all the ways in which I deceive myself, and catch myself, deceiving myself. It makes me laugh. I will be more firm and honest with Monkey, next time. Every crappy thing I make is a chance to learn and grow. They say that every starting painter has a thousand shitty pictures inside…to arrive at the good stuff, she first has to paint out all that rubbish. I have a LOT more paintings to do…

I called this canvas “Desert Rose,” though its real name should be “Monkey, Dressed in Finery”.

jungles real & imagined

We Go...
We Go In Search Of Our Dreams, 2017.30x40cm. (12×16″) acrylics and alkyds.

My friends organised a group show while I was in Guatemala, called Gypsies, Vagabonds, and Wild Mad Women (open from 13th April – 7 May at Tactile Arts, Fannie Bay, NT), and included me. When I got back to Darwin in October of last year, I found it so difficult to do the work for it. Of the 7 small canvases I prepared, I only managed to paint 2 in the end. This painting was one of them.

Unlike most of the other things I made for the show, this one practically painted itself. That’s partly because realistic stuff is actually quite easy to paint…I’m not really inventing anything from scratch: trees, plants, jungle backgrounds, lianas, ferns, backpackers…I’ve seen them all, at some point in my life, and know roughly how they ought to look. Putting all these elements together may be a kind of inventing, but I’m really just layering one familiar image on top of another.

The other reason this painting came so easily is that I have fairly recent memories of jungles like this. Kris and I spent 5 months up a river in Guyana, surrounded by riverine jungle…and very little else.

Jungle Trail

I have some photographs from this part of our trip, but looking at them now somehow doesn’t recall the way it felt to be there. That’s the danger of relying on photographs to preserve your memories: very few of the photographs we take do the experience justice. With a camera in hand, I tend not to observe as much of my surroundings…I don’t stop to gaze at one thing, burning it into a complex memory that includes sounds, smells, textures, movement. I am counting on the digital record to reproduce all of that for me, later. But the camera can’t record smells or textures or sound (not mine, not well), and it focuses on no single thing; unless I’ve taken a macro of some flower or other small object, most of my shots of “the jungle” are just a mess to look at: a million leaves, a tangle of branches and vines, every skinny palm tree or rotting log is there, in the poor light that filters down through the canopy. The photographs show everything; and yet, often, show nothing. A green and brown shadowy chaos.

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If I hadn’t spent hours upon hours just paddling around, gazing up at the forest canopy, or walking around with my eyes glued to the forest floor; if I hadn’t taken individual plant specimens home to carefully sketch, or written page upon page of what it was like, at that moment, to be sitting on deck, looking up at canyon walls covered in trees and snaking vines…I would not remember Guyana as vividly as I do.

jungle underpainting

All that actual looking, writing, smelling, touching, sketching paid off. As I painted each layer of this canvas, I heard the whooping bird calls again, the yip-yip-yip of toucans colourful as piñatas; the drawn-out roars of howler monkeys  echoing from deep among the trees; the boiling surface of the murky river, as great fanged arapaimas hunted blindly for the smaller piranhas; the ghostly lights of giant fireflies floating among the buttress-roots of giant trees. I saw again the up-and-down floaty bounce of morpho butterflies—their Dutch Blue wings flashing in and out of sunlit patches. Felt the cool air of the forest floor on my face, and heard the muffled patter of fat raindrops falling through the jungle canopy in a storm.

Jungle Trail

This painting became a doorway back to that world, that time in my life. I got misty eyed quite often, painting this (even though the finished painting is hardly fine art) and the memories flooded me with rapture—How can this wild, primeval memory be mine? How have I deserved to be the owner of such magnificent sensations?—and regret, because I could have spent a decade in that jungle, and still be a stranger to its secrets. I am sorry I could not spend more time…not just in Guyana, but in all of the places we visited and fell in love with.jungle underpainting

Still, to have been there at all is a miracle. I never dreamed I would make it to any place so wild and beautiful. And I have my memories, scented and intricate and rich, tucked inside: a miniature door that I pray will continue to open for me, when I need it, given the right touch, turning the right key.

his nibs

vintage nibsAn exercise in monochrome sketching (except that I added amber ink splatters, at the end) and cross-hatching. One of my favourite artists, as far as drawing with ink is concerned, is Ronald Searle. He drew with a dip pen—wonderful variation of thick and thin lines—and used splatters in his drawings, a lot; so I did the same here: a couple of nibs, and sepia ink. Splatters using amber ink and a toothbrush.

This was my week’s homework for Sketchbook Skool: Exploring…which I scraped the bottom of my bank account  to join because this is the last time the class “Exploring” is going to run, and urban sketcher Felix Scheinberger—one of my idols—will be teaching. But all the teachers in Exploring are excellent, and I am looking forward to doing something different each week, with each one.

I am trying to rekindle some kind of daily drawing habit, too, and paying for a class is a good way to make sure you do the drawing assignments!

This week’s class was given by Danny Gregory, also a very cool artist, and I enjoyed his demos of how to draw an object using only contour lines and different kinds of hatching marks to give it dimension and texture. His video, “Breakfast,” doesn’t just make me hungry, it really makes me want to be the sort of person who does a drawing in her sketchbook, first thing in the morning, every morning. Right after the first pee, and before having coffee and a fag (and that’s my breakfast…no toasty onion bagels *sigh*) 😉

 

Burning the midnight sun

POLLINATE Rechargable solar lamp

I bought a POLLINATE ENERGY Rechargable solar lamp recently, after seeing it in action at a friend’s garden party. I’ve been using it every night, since, and cannot praise it enough.

I connect the lamp to its small solar panel (installed permanently on the roof of the houseboat) during the day to charge it; at night, I disconnect it from the solar panel, and can then use the lamp as a desk lamp (it comes with a stand), a hanging light, or as a handheld torch/flashlight, anywhere on the boat. It casts a warm and extremely bright light.  At it’s brightest setting (it has three: a night light setting, a regular setting you can read or cook by, and a turbo setting good enough to embroider by,) a fully-charged lamp will last 6 hours.

The boat has always been equipped with solar lights, but because they run off a large deep-cycle 12-volt battery, they have wires, and had to be permanently fixed to the ceilings; I can’t move around the boat to work, and the light coming from several feet overhead just isn’t powerful enough to do fine work by. I used to have to stop doing finicky crafts or drawing when evening came, because most LED solar lights are bluish, sickly, and flicker in a way that tires the eyes quickly.

pro2-1

Since buying the Sunking Pro2 from Pollinate Energy, I have been able to stitch, write, read, paint, and bind books well into the night. I’m no longer confined to my worktable inside the cabin, but free to work anywhere on Sonofagun’s spacious deck, as well. Heck, I could take my needlework with me, camping, if I was so inclined.

Both the lamp and its solar panel are ruggedly built and virtually indestructible. The battery has a lifetime of 5 years, and the lamp comes with a 2 year warranty. I didn’t even mention the 2 USB charging ports, because I don’t have any use for them…my big solar panel and battery set-up handles that.

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And if all of that doesn’t make this lamp desirable enough, then you should know about Pollinate Energy’s mission to provide safe, clean, solar-powered light (among other things) to households in India. When I buy one Sunking Pro2 lamp, in Australia (about AUD130, with shipping), I subsidise the costs of production to make 5 solar lamps affordable for families living in the urban slums of India—so that kids don’t have to study or do their homework by the dangerous, smelly, toxic light of a kerosene lamp, and their parents can do their livelihood work in the evenings by good, bright lights. These lights save on kerosene, on carbon emissions, save eyes and lungs, and won’t start fires…

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They’re perfect, really. I recommend the Sunking Pro2 to anyone wanting a good, bright portable light…not just the odd boat or caravan dwellers and enthusiastic campers, but even anyone that currently owns a large flashlight and buys disposable batteries for it. Check out Pollinate’s website here.

And no, I was neither paid nor prompted to write this. I am only too happy to recommend good products for free, when I come upon them. 🙂

Write over the edge of a cliff

“So I have two opposing beliefs that exist side by side—one, that communication is possible; two, that communication is impossible—and I swing back and forth, writing or not writing.”   —Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order

I’m just going to dive into this post, because if I try to “catch up” with everything that has happened since October, I will never get the job done.

Stephen Dobyns sums up the way I often feel about blogging. The task of ordering my thoughts around the subject matter, and writing them down in the best way I possibly can, takes so much time and energy, it’s almost like having a second (third?) job. And yet, that is the only way to truly communicate something. The point of writing, after all, is to communicate: to take an experience, a thought, a feeling, and express it as succinctly as possible, so that you manage to move that experience or idea (nearly, though never entirely, because everyone interprets words differently) from your own head and into the head of a reader.

If I can’t afford the time and effort to craft a well-written post, then why write at all? Quick, lazy writing—pock-marked with clichés, superlatives, and the sort of fatuous declarations that are thrown around the internet so indiscriminately these days, they have lost all meaning—reaches no one. It does nobody any good and may as well not exist. Poor writing is self-centered and self-serving. It is also disrespectful. It insults the reader’s intelligence, often reveals the writer’s poor grasp of their tools, and it wastes both parties’ time.

Despite all the care taken to arrange words so that they convey something precise, communication still fails, sometimes. Writers are not the only people guilty of being lazy and careless with words. Readers can also fall short of their roles and speed their way heedlessly through words, misinterpreting them or failing to appreciate that someone has, to the best of their abilities, chosen these particular words, and has put them in this particular order, for a reason.

They say writing, as a profession, is dying, and I believe that.

“Literary fiction used to be central to the culture. No more: in the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of ‘difficult’ reading is being challenged.”
—from The novel is dead (this time its for real), by Will Self for  The Guardian

Forget the debate between ‘dead tree’ vs. ebooks, and how the ease with which anybody can now ‘publish’ a book (because there are no financial risks involved in backing and promoting a lousy writer, whose work is a mere digital file that can be replicated ad infinitum) will make the difficult profession and demanding craft of writing extinct. I believe that even ebooks will die out, eventually, as both writers and readers get lazier, do whatever comes easiest. Any attempts to actually teach critical reading or serious writing in schools will come to be seen as “bullying” the children into learning something that is neither ‘fun’ nor profitable.

The visual image is the real king, these days, because it demands less of its audience. It is instantly gratifying, it titillates with colors and shapes (and subject matter), it does not require an education, a vocabulary, memory (in order to make sense of succeeding paragraphs, one must be able to recall what was said in the preceding ones)…it does not even require knowing a language. It’s wonderful in that way. It will cross boundaries of language, geography, culture, education and class, in a heartbeat. It’s a wonderful thing, the image—quick and easy to take in—though perhaps responding, relating, and consuming only images will be as detrimental to our mental health as consuming only packets of chips and bite-sized morsels of processed food would be to our bodies.

But nobody’s worried about that, because the great thing about this worldwide and systematic decline in critical reading OR quality writing is that if we are ALL uniformly dumber, then we really aren’t dumb anymore, are we? We may have taken a step backward, but we’ve all taken it together, and anything more demanding ceases to exist as something we have lost, or as something to be regained, because we simply won’t be aware that it ever was. The reference point blips out soundlessly, like the tree nobody was around to hear fall over in the forest.

I am on my way out of the devolving world, and the intellectual futures of people who made something like Fifty Shades of Grey a bestseller—with its appallingly bad metaphors, its “sex will make bad writing palatable to dumb readers” strategy, and its author’s (and publisher’s) cavalier abandonment of any standards of quality—is not really my concern, anymore. If anything, I’m merely disappointed by how few of the new and trumpeted books emerging in bookstores and libraries have stolen my heart this year…

But I’ll keep on writing, here and elsewhere, even though the number of people willing to slow down and read a few hundred words with mindfulness has dwindled (and will continue to dwindle). Because I value the act of writing, in and of itself, whether it gets read or not. Because good writing brought me up and carried me through the wilderness of this world. Because I can’t not write.